The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Rock and Hawk,” one of Robinson Jeffers’s most often reprinted short poems, has been regularly identified as one of his signature pieces—that is, it presents, in simple, direct form, one of his main themes. That theme has been called “Inhumanism.” It is based in the concept that humans, far from being the central point of reference in the cosmos, are a minor component of the process, significant only because they are capable of producing damage out of proportion to their importance. The idea is Darwinian, growing out of Jeffers’s post-college researches in medicine and biology. It can be considered an early statement of the radical environmental attitude.

The poem accomplishes this by presenting what it calls a “symbol”: a falcon perched on an ancient, massive rock high on a headland. In this symbol, the poem states, “Many high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” This complex allusion draws several ideas together. On one level, thoughts of high tragedy have conventionally been those that best represented the values of human civilization, those qualities that humans prized. Here they “watch their own eyes,” as if distrustful of their own motives. Second, in one high tragedy, that of Oedipus, the hero literally pierces his eyes because of the horror he has been forced to discover about himself. Finally, if thoughts of high tragedy are thus suspect, their eyes betray fundamental human hypocrisy. The rock juts out, the single...

(The entire section is 470 words.)